Study finds ‘important implications’ to understanding immunity against COVID-19

New research from Emory University indicates that nearly all people hospitalized with COVID-19 develop virus-neutralizing antibodies within six days of testing positive. The findings will be key in helping researchers understand protective immunity against SARS-CoV-2 and in informing vaccine development. The test that Emory researchers developed also could help determine whether convalescent plasma from COVID-19 survivors can provide immunity to others, and which donors' plasma should be used. The antibody test developed by Emory and validated Read more

Emory plays leading role in landmark HIV prevention study of injectable long-acting cabotegravir

Emory University played a key role in a landmark international study evaluating the safety and efficacy of the long-acting, injectable drug, cabotegravir (CAB LA), for HIV prevention. The randomized, controlled, double-blind study found that cabotegravir was 69% more effective (95% CI 41%-84%) in preventing HIV acquisition in men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women who have sex with men when compared to the current standard of care, daily oral emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate Read more

Yerkes researchers find Zika infection soon after birth leads to long-term brain problems

Researchers from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center have shown Zika virus infection soon after birth leads to long-term brain and behavior problems, including persistent socioemotional, cognitive and motor deficits, as well as abnormalities in brain structure and function. This study is one of the first to shed light on potential long-term effects of Zika infection after birth. “Researchers have shown the devastating damage Zika virus causes to a fetus, but we had questions about Read more

Neuro

Yerkes researchers find Zika infection soon after birth leads to long-term brain problems

Researchers from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center have shown Zika virus infection soon after birth leads to long-term brain and behavior problems, including persistent socioemotional, cognitive and motor deficits, as well as abnormalities in brain structure and function. This study is one of the first to shed light on potential long-term effects of Zika infection after birth.

“Researchers have shown the devastating damage Zika virus causes to a fetus, but we had questions about what happens to the developing brain of a young child who gets infected by Zika,” says lead researcher Ann Chahroudi, MD, PhD, an affiliate scientist in the Division of Microbiology and Immunology at Yerkes, director of the Center for Childhood Infections and Vaccines (CCIV), Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) and Emory University, and an associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Our pilot study in nonhuman primates provides clues that Zika virus infection during the early postnatal period can have long-lasting impact on how the brain develops and works, and how this scenario has the potential to impact child behavior,” Chahroudi continues.

The study, published online in Nature Communicationsfollowed four infant rhesus monkeys for one year after Zika virus infection at one month of age. Studying a rhesus monkey until the age of 1 translates to the equivalent of 4 to 5 years in human age. Researchers found postnatal Zika virus infections led to Impairments in memory function, significant changes in behavior, including reduced social interactions and increased emotional reactions, and some gross motor deficits. These changes corresponded with structural and functional brain changes the researchers found on MRI scans – findings that indicate long-term neurologic complications.

“Our findings demonstrate neurodevelopmental changes detected at 3 and 6 months of age are persistent,” says first author Jessica Raper, PhD, research assistant professor at Yerkes. (See Science Translational Medicine for an earlier study by members of the current research team.) “This is significant because it gives healthcare providers a better understanding of possible complications of Zika beyond infection during pregnancy and into the first years of life,” she adds.
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‘Genetic doppelgangers:’ Emory research provides insight into two neurological puzzles

An international team led by Emory scientists has gained insight into the pathological mechanisms behind two devastating neurodegenerative diseases. The scientists compared the most common inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia (ALS/FTD) with a rarer disease called spinocerebellar ataxia type 36 (SCA 36).

Both of the diseases are caused by abnormally expanded and strikingly similar DNA repeats. However, ALS progresses quickly, typically killing patients within a year or two, while the disease progression of SCA36 proceeds more slowly over the course of decades. In ALS/FTD it appears that protein products can poison cells in the nervous system. Whether similar protein products exist in SCA36 is not known.

What Zachary McEachin, PhD, and Gary Bassell, PhD, from Emory’s Department of Cell Biology, along with a team of collaborators at Emory, the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, and internationally from Spain and Japan, discovered have provided a new paradigm for thinking about how aberrant protein species are formed.  Regardless of the disparate clinical outcomes between these diseases, this research could broaden the avenue of research toward genetically targeted treatments for such related neurodegenerative diseases.

Their study, published Tuesday in Neuron, provides a guide to types of protein that build up in brain cells in both disorders, and which should be reduced if the new mode of treatment is working in clinical trials.

“We are thinking of these diseases as genetic doppelgängers,” says McEachin, a postdoctoral fellow in Bassell’s lab. “By that, I mean they are genetically similar, but the neurodegeneration progresses differently for each disease. We can use this research to understand each of the respective disorders much better — and hopefully help patients improve their quality of life down the road with better treatments.”

An estimated 16,000 people in the United States have ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The most common inherited form of ALS/FTD occurs because there is an abnormally expanded repeat of six DNA “letters” stuck into a gene called c9orf72.

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NINDS supporting Emory/UF work on myotonic dystrophy

A collaboration we wrote about back in 2017, between Emory cell biology chair Gary Bassell and University of Florida neurogeneticist Eric Wang, is taking off.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has awarded Bassell’s and Wang’s laboratories $2.2 million over five years to examine the neuronal function of Muscleblind-like proteins, which play key roles in myotonic dystrophy.

Gary Bassell and Eric Wang have been collaborating on myotonic dystrophy research

The classic symptom for myotonic dystrophy is having trouble releasing one’s grip on a doorknob, but it is a multi-system disorder, caused by expanded DNA triplet or quadruplet repeats. RNA from the expanded repeats is thought to bind and sequester Muscleblind-like proteins, leading to an impaired process of RNA splicing.

Bassell says the project is expected to clarify how Muscleblind-like proteins regulate RNA localization in neurons and also identify therapeutic targets. In recent years, the DM research community has been paying increasing attention to neurologic symptoms.

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Traynelis lead researcher on CureGRIN/Chan Zuckerberg award

Congratulations to the CureGRIN Foundation, which was recently awarded a capacity-building grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Rare as One Network. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is giving 30 patient advocacy groups such as CureGRIN $450,000 each over two years.

CureGRIN works closely with Emory pharmacologist Stephen Traynelis, who has been investigating rare genetic disorders affecting NMDA receptors, which play key roles in memory, learning and neuronal development. When NMDA receptor function is perturbed by mutations, symptoms appear in infancy or early childhood, usually including epilepsy and developmental delay.

For the grant, Traynelis is named as the lead researcher for the CureGRIN Foundation, with Tim Benke of Children’s Hospital Colorado as lead clinician. Traynelis is director of the Center for Functional Evaluation of Rare Variants, which hosted a gathering at Emory Conference Center that brought together several GRIN-oriented patient advocacy groups in September 2019.

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Neurodegeneration accelerated by intestinal bacteria?

An influential theory about the anatomical trajectory of Parkinson’s disease is getting a microbial boost. The idea, first proposed by neuroanatomist Heiko Braak in 2003, is that pathology and neurodegeneration start in the intestines and then travel to the brain. See this article in Scientific American for background.

Illustration showing neurons with Lewy bodies, depicted as small red spheres, which are deposits of aggregated proteins in brain cells

Timothy Sampson, in Emory’s Department of Physiology, was first author on a recent paper in eLife, which explores the idea that prion-like proteins produced by intestinal bacteria can accelerate the aggregation of similar proteins found in our cells. The findings suggest that interventions targeting intestinal bacteria could modulate neurodegeneration.

Sampson, a former Emory graduate student who did postdoctoral work in Sarkis Mazmaniam’s lab at Caltech, says he will continue the project here. He and his colleagues were looking at the interaction between a bacterial protein called Curli – involved in adhesion + biofilms — and the aggregation-prone mammalian protein alpha-synuclein, known as a main component of the Lewy body clumps seen in Parkinson’s. The experiments were in a mouse model of Parkinson’s neurodegeneration, in which human alpha-synuclein is overproduced.

Looking ahead, Sampson says he is interested in what signals from the microbiome may trigger, accelerate or slow synuclein aggregation. He’s also looking at where in the GI tract synuclein begins to aggregate, possibly facilitated by particular cells in the intestine, and whether the observations with alpha-synuclein hold true for other proteins such as amyloid-beta in Alzheimer’s.

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More NMDA but less excitotoxicity? Now possible

Emory pharmacologists have discovered a new class of potential drugs that might allow them to have their cake and eat it too — with reference to NMDA receptors, important control sites in the brain for learning and memory.

Many researchers have wanted to enhance NMDA receptor signals to treat disorders such as schizophrenia. But at the same time, they need to avoid killing neurons with “excitotoxicity”, which comes from excess calcium entering the cell. Excitotoxicity is thought to be a major mechanism of cell death in stroke and traumatic brain injury.

Usually more sensitivity to NMDA activation and excess calcium go hand in hand. In a new Nature Chemical Biology paper, pharmacologist Stephen Traynelis and colleagues have identified a group of compounds that allow them to separate those two aspects of NMDA signaling.

These compounds appear to selectively decrease how much calcium (as opposed to sodium) flows through the NMDA ion channel. Traynelis says that the discovery opens up pharmacological possibilities for NMDA receptors similar to those for other receptor classes that are prominent drug targets, such as G-protein coupled receptors and acetylcholine receptors. With such receptors, the drugs are called “biased agonists” or “biased modulators” because they shift the balance of how the ion channel responds.

For NMDA receptors, how these newly identified compounds work on a molecular level needs to be explored, and could lead to the long-standing goal of NMDA-based neuroprotection for treatment of stroke/TBI, the authors note. Postdoc Riley Perszyk is first author, with cell biologist Gary Bassell and chemists Dennis Liotta and Lanny Liebeskind as co-authors.

Traynelis discussed this research in his Hodgkin Huxley Katz Prize Lecture to the Physiology 2019 conference in Scotland in December 2019 (the part about the new class of NMDA modulators starts at about 20 minutes).

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Probing visual memory at leisure

Emory Brain Health researchers have developed a computer program that passively assesses visual memory. An infrared eye tracker monitors eye movements, while the person being tested views a series of photos.

This approach, relatively unstrenuous for those whose memory is being assessed, is an alternative for the diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. It detects degeneration of the regions of the brain that govern visual memory (entorhinal cortex/hippocampus), which are some of the earliest to deteriorate.

The approach was published in Learning and Memory last year, but bioinformatics chair Gari Clifford discussed the project at a recent talk, and we felt it deserved more attention. First author Rafi Haque is a MD/PhD student in the Neuroscience program, with neurology chair/Goizueta ADRC director Allan Levey as senior author.

Eye tracking of people with MCI and Alzheimer’s shows they spend less time checking the new or missing element in the critical region of the photo, compared with healthy controls. Adapted from Haque et al 2019.

The entire test takes around 4 minutes on a standard 24 inch monitor (a follow-up publication on an iPad version is in the pipeline). Photos are presented twice a few minutes apart, and the second time, part of the photo is missing or new – see diagram above. Read more

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Setting the goalposts for ALS clinical trials

In the fight against a relentless neurodegenerative disease such as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a critical question for research is: what is the definition of success?

Emory neurologists, with advice from other experts, have created a new disability rating scale for ALS. This is a set of questions patients or their caregivers answer to gauge how much ALS is eroding someone’s ability to manage daily life. The researchers think it can become a resource for testing new treatments for ALS in clinical trials.

The research used to develop the new rating scale was published on December 30 in JAMA Neurology. The rating scale itself will be available on the Emory ALS Center web site.

ALS’s attack on motor neurons makes it progressively more difficult to accomplish tasks such as household chores, daily hygiene, and eventually speaking and eating. Some patients live a year or two after diagnosis, some live ten.

Christina Fournier, MD

“If our goal in clinical trials is to have that decline happen more slowly, how we measure it matters,” says lead author Christina Fournier, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Emory University School of Medicine and co-director of Emory’s ALS Center.

Update: see Fournier’s comments to Medscape/Reuters Health here.

The current standard outcome measure is the ALSFRS-R (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Functional Rating Scale-Revised). While widely accepted in the field, the ALSFRS-R has some uneven aspects, or nonlinear weighting, which become problems when it is used to determine drug approval.

One example: a patient’s score will decline 3 points if they change from climbing stairs normally to holding a handrail, and will decline the same amount if they change from normal dressing and hygiene to being unable to dress or perform hygiene tasks without assistance. So 3 points can represent small or large changes in their lives. Also, the ALSFRS-R can change depending on symptom management, rather than underlying biology.

To put this in perspective, the most recent drug to be approved by the FDA (edaravone) displayed an effect size of 2.5 points – and the same drug faced resistance from European regulators. According to the Wall Street Journal, about 20 drugs are in clinical testing for ALS and 5 are in the late stages of development. Read more

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Hedgehog pathway outside cilia

Emory geneticist Tamara Caspary is an expert on the Hedgehog pathway, critical for brain development. In particular, she and her colleagues have been studying a gene that is part of the Hedgehog pathway called Arl13b, which is mutated in Joubert syndrome, affecting development of the cerebellum and brain stem.

The Arl13b protein was known to be enriched in primary cilia, tiny hair-like cellular structures with a signaling/navigation function in neuronal development. However Caspary’s lab, in a collaboration with Frederic Charron’s group in Montreal, has found that Arl13b can also function outside cilia: in axons and growth cones.

The Hedgehog pathway has several roles, some in specifying what embryonic cells will become, and others in terms of guiding growing axons, the scientists conclude in their new paper in Cell Reports.

“Arl13b regulates Shh [Sonic Hedgehog] signaling through two mechanisms: a cilia-associated one to specify cell fate and a cilia localization-independent one to guide axons,” they write.  A related preprint, confirming Arl13b’s extra-ciliary role in mouse development, has been posted on bioRxiv.

 

 

 

 

 

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Opioids: crunching the Tweets

Posts on publicly available social media platforms such as Twitter contain a huge volume of information about the declared activities and transient whims of millions of people. Within this unruly pile of data, there may be clues that could help public health researchers track opioid users and issues affecting them.

Abeed Sarker from Emory’s Department of Biomedical Informatics recently published a paper in JAMA Network Open on his analysis of Twitter posts about opioid use. The paper was featured in Popular Science.

Sarker and colleagues from Penn trained a machine learning algorithm on a subset of posts about opioid use, so that the algorithm could analyze a larger body of tweets. They found that Twitter posts about opioids in Pennsylvania, classified by the algorithm, matched the rates of overdose deaths and rates of opioid use measured through national surveys. Their aim is to be able to spot patterns of overdoses faster than prescription drug monitoring programs.

“The findings suggest that automatic processing of social media data, combined with geospatial and temporal information, may provide close to real-time insights into the status and trajectory of the opioid epidemic,” the authors write.

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